The first thing I noticed when I walked into Laurie Bertram Roberts’s cluttered living room was the ceiling-high stack of diaper boxes lining the wall. Initially, our plan had been to meet at the new headquarters of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund (MRFF), the nonprofit that Roberts co-founded and runs. But just as I exited I-20 into the city of Jackson, Roberts texted me to say that her plans had changed. They would change many more times throughout the afternoon.
I’d become familiar with Roberts’s work some months earlier, at a meeting of a group called New York City for Abortion Rights. The group hosted Roberts on a Skype call, and even from afar she was a riveting speaker: warm, funny, passionate, and blunt. Roberts mentioned that after the 2016 presidential election, the MRFF had received an astonishing $34,000 in donations—up from $3,500 in the years before. Suddenly, Mississippi had become an alarming preview of what abortion access might look like for the rest of the country. So, this past September, I traveled to Jackson to see firsthand how Roberts’s organization was coping with this new influx of attention and money. What I discovered was something even more interesting: that Roberts had a radical new vision for what an abortion fund could do and be.
The front door to her house was open when I arrived, and one of Roberts’s sons, in his early 20s, cleared off a chair for me to sit in while she finished up a task in the back. The four-bedroom house was brimming with people—12, to be exact. There was Roberts, her seven kids, and an assortment of friends, as well as a litter of kittens that had been born a few days earlier.
When Roberts came into the living room, she spotted a pack of emergency contraception on the bookshelf and asked her daughter to put it in the drawer with the rest of the supply. She also found a dental-dam demo in her purse. Nothing in Roberts’s world is separate from reproductive justice. Her home is a reflection, or perhaps a collection, of her work: helping people to parent, or choose not to, whether they need a Plan B pill, money for an abortion, or diapers for their newborn.
“Reproductive justice” is a framework developed by Loretta Ross and the activist group SisterSong, which defines it as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” SisterSong was formed in 1997 by women of color to move beyond a pro-choice paradigm that centered around white women of privilege and didn’t adequately address the intersecting issues of race, gender, class, ability, nationality, and sexual orientation.
The MRFF is part of this legacy, along with a growing number of organizations across the country that not only fund abortion access, but also provide support and resources to people who are pregnant or parenting. The MRFF also happens to be one of the few abortion funds in the country founded and led by black women. “I jokingly like to say we are the only ‘hood feminist’–led abortion fund, by which I mean unapologetically hood and black,” Roberts said.
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That day, a local woman named Deirdre had just given birth to her third child and needed help: She was recovering from a cesarean section in the hospital and had learned that Child Protective Services would be visiting her house for an inspection. Deirdre didn’t have any family to help with her recovery or prepare for the CPS visit, and she was terrified that her children would be taken away. Her neighbor happened to be an MRFF board member and put her in touch with Roberts. “We see people who are suspected of neglecting their kids, but the issue is actually complex poverty,” Roberts told me. “The real issue is, they are poor, and because we are community-based and get clients from word of mouth, it’s easy to identify what the problems are.”
Roberts immediately came up with a plan. The first step was buying all the things that Deirdre would need to satisfy CPS, such as a bassinet and a car seat. Roberts, her partner, two of her daughters, and I piled into her handicap-accessible van (Roberts has chronic health issues and often gets around in a wheelchair) and careened through Jackson’s streets to the Salvation Army Store and then on to Walmart. Roberts led the way, grabbing onesies, baby blankets, cleaning supplies, and a stroller with room for three kids. She’d dealt with the stress of CPS visits herself as a poor, single mom and wanted to give Deirdre everything. “I don’t want her to have all hand-me-downs or used stuff,” Roberts said. “Poor people deserve nice things, too.”
Ever chatty, Roberts struck up conversations with shoppers along the way and helped an elderly woman select an outfit for her new grandchild. As we cruised through the toy aisle, we ran into an MRFF board member named Kim and her nephew, who joined our crew, which was now seven people and three carts strong. The checkout girl seemed astonished; while she rang up the items, Roberts explained the MRFF’s mission: “Who celebrates black women having babies? No one.”
Roberts is not originally from Mississippi. She was born in Minnesota and raised in a fundamentalist Baptist church that was overwhelmingly white, and where she encountered racism as a biracial child. Roberts and her mother moved to Indiana when she was 14, and the adjustment to a new place was tough. While she had started off as a good student, she was bullied in high school and dropped out at 15. The next year, she got pregnant and married the father of her twins (the pair split up in 1996.) She stayed in Indiana for the next decade, where she had the rest of her children, who are now between the ages of 15 and 24.
Roberts first got into advocacy work because her twin daughters have autism, and she started attending school-board meetings to ask why there wasn’t more funding for autism education in preschool. Her cousin told me that Roberts has always been a “go-getter,” and activism and advocacy came naturally to her, thanks in part to her upbringing in evangelical churches. “The thing about being a ‘fundie’ is, they pretty much all believe in evangelizing—in going door to door, winning souls, and giving out those tracts to strangers,” Roberts said. “From the time I was 3, I was trained to do that. Community organizing is nothing compared to pushing religion on people. I was taught to have no fear.”
Roberts was pro-life, until one day she found herself in a Planned Parenthood clinic seeking an abortion. An ultrasound revealed that her pregnancy was not progressing normally and that she would miscarry, so the clinic returned her payment and suggested that she seek care through Medicaid, which covered treatment for a nonviable pregnancy. The clinic staff also checked in with her later to see how was she doing.
The experience was completely different than Roberts had expected. “I was taught that Planned Parenthood will give you an abortion even if you’re not pregnant, to take your money,” she said. Her experience at the clinic “didn’t make me super pro-choice at the time, but it opened my eyes… It debunked a lot of lies I was taught as a kid.”
A few years later, she went to a crisis-pregnancy center in Indiana for a free pregnancy test. (CPCs are anti-abortion and usually run by religious groups.) Roberts had given birth to a son—her sixth child—four months earlier and was juggling multiple jobs, mostly in fast food, to support her family. Her mother and grandmother helped out with the child care, but money was tight and her schedule was grueling. The CPC counselor asked Roberts if she was married to the father; when Roberts said no, the counselor lectured her at length about how it would be more pleasing to God if they wed. Roberts replied that her partner was abusive and that she was trying to leave him; the counselor told her to pray more. That conversation seeded her ambition to open a different kind of pregnancy-resource center.
Roberts remained in Indiana until she was 27 and moved to Mississippi to study political science at Jackson State University in 2005. Her kids stayed with her mother. Roberts got involved in campus activism concerning sexual assault and intimate-partner violence. Later, a woman in her dorm recruited her to join the state National Organization for Women (NOW) chapter; Roberts eventually became the state chapter’s president, and in that position helped to implement a clinic-escort program for the only abortion clinic in Jackson (and now in the state): the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, commonly known as the Pink House.
Mississippi is the most restrictive state in the country when it comes to getting an abortion, and the clinic regularly attracts protesters who yell, wave vulgar signs, and harass patients. Through running the escort program, Roberts realized that many patients were struggling to pay for their abortion care, and there was no abortion fund in the state to help them. She and two of her daughters started out by raising the money themselves and giving it to patients in need.
At the end of 2014, Roberts left NOW to establish, with three of her daughters, the abortion fund as an independent entity. In 2015, the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund became part of the National Network of Abortion Funds. Roberts has brought her family with her to NNAF conferences, and one of her daughters has participated in the network’s “We Testify” program, which highlights women’s abortion stories in an effort to erode the stigma that surrounds the procedure in some parts of the country. Much like their trips to Comic-Con, which Roberts and her family attend whenever they’re able (recent costumes have included Sailor Moon, Hello Kitty, and, for Roberts, the Batman villain Harley Quinn), activism is a family activity; Roberts also attends protests, writes articles for the Jackson Free Press, and comments on abortion legislation for the local news. These days, she’s a fixture on the reproductive-justice circuit. “Her unapologetic way of speaking truth to power made me an instant follower,” said Amanda Furdge, director of the Unita Blackwell Young Women’s Leadership Institute in Jackson. “She is brave, outspoken, fierce, yet kind. There cannot be any honest dialogue about abortion rights here in the South without mention of Laurie and her work.”
With the flood of new donations, which Roberts refers to as the “Trump bump,” the MRFF was able to purchase the handicap-accessible van. It is used, among other things, to drive patients to clinic appointments, both in and out of state. The fund was also able to buy a small house in Jackson, lovingly referred to as the “fundshack,” to serve as the center of operations instead of Roberts’s living room. The team will use the space to run its abortion-funding hotline and to provide free accommodations for patients traveling to Jackson for an appointment. The MRFF also gives away condoms and Plan B pills, and, when it can, offers money to buy birth control; at the same time, the house will provide space for hosting community baby showers, providing abortion doula support, and operating a diaper bank. The diaper mountain in Roberts’s living room will be relocated to the MRFF house once her son has installed new locks on its doors.
The Trump-bump money made a lot of new things possible, but it brought its own tensions, too. Last summer, a woman who works at the Pink House—which has a fund to support abortion access connected directly to its clinic—published a blog post titled “The Fleecing of Mississippi Women.” In it, the author claimed that the MRFF wasn’t putting the donation money to its professed use. “To put things in perspective, over the last few years our patients have only very sporadically been assisted by this fund,” the article read. “This year has been a continuance of the same pattern we’ve seen for many years—the fund has given $150, one time, to one patient in our clinic in all of 2018…. Yes, we understand that ‘abortion funds’ say they are assisting patients who may have to go out of state for their abortions; we understand they claim to provide other nebulous, less verifiable assistance such as child care, food, travel, lodging. But our patients, the ones coming in to the only abortion clinic in the state, are not seeing this assistance.”
Roberts openly acknowledged that some donations to the MRFF don’t go directly to funding abortion procedures, which is why it’s called a “reproductive freedom” fund instead of an “abortion” fund. She also said that the MRFF has given far more than just $150 to women going to the Pink House for abortion services, though the clinic may not realize that the cash used to pay for those services came from the MRFF. Finally, she insists that what the blog critic termed “nebulous, less verifiable assistance” is every bit as important for many women—for example, if a woman receives $500 for a procedure but can’t get to the clinic, then abortion care remains inaccessible for her. (The Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which runs the Pink House, did not respond to requests for comment.)
Roberts said it’s important that she can hear a story like Deirdre’s and deploy resources in the moment; for her, buying a stroller for one woman is no less important than paying for an abortion for another, and she says that emphasizing the distinctions between different types of assistance reflects a lack of understanding about the obstacles that poor women face. “Our job is to facilitate wherever people need to go, on their terms,” Roberts explained. “We put the money in their hands because we trust women and poor people. I don’t care if they take that money and put it towards paying their light bill.”
Accountability has been part of this dispute—donors should have a right to know where their money is going—but it’s also about a difference in perspective regarding the scope of the group’s work. As the only member of the National Network of Abortion Funds in Mississippi, the MRFF is in a prime position to capture the adherence of people who want to support abortion access—but the organization is clear that abortion funding is only one part of a larger mandate.
Yamani Hernandez, the executive director of the NNAF, said that her organization fully supports this more holistic approach. “Our work is about more than solely funding abortion,” she said in an e-mail; it’s about “building a movement that is strong enough to fight the systemic issues that make abortion funds necessary. The Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund is a visionary abortion fund in the network and are leaders in pushing a reproductive-justice framework.”
In that respect, the MRFF is part of a broader shift among groups that enable abortion access to also provide support for women who are pregnant or parenting. “The shift in the current view of reproductive-health care [is] to be inclusive of policies that would support the ability to better parent, like universal child care, or [to] expand access to reproductive-health care for the most marginalized, like health care for all and certainly the repeal of the Hyde amendment [which bars Medicaid from funding abortions],” said Dr. Leana Wen, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in an e-mail.
This more expansive approach may not change the minds of people who oppose abortion, but it does undermine the myth that to support abortion rights is somehow to be against having children. In Memphis, a group called CHOICES provides not just abortion care but also adoption referrals, birth and midwifery services, miscarriage management, birth control, and more. In Bloomington, Indiana, the All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center provides comprehensive pregnancy counseling and other resources, whether the woman decides on abortion, adoption, or keeping the baby. All-Options also runs the Hoosier Abortion Fund, as well as a diaper bank.
“We really wanted to open a pregnancy center that was done right, in a way that, frankly, our movement hasn’t done and that CPCs have taken advantage of,” said Parker Dockray, the executive director of All-Options. “Our goal is to support people who want to continue to parent and are struggling, and [to] hold that in the same space as an abortion fund and referrals to abortion providers.” For her part, the NNAF’s Hernandez said that she’d love to see more abortion funds develop in this direction—but one big challenge is that most funds can’t meet the overwhelming demand just for abortion support. Last year, for example, the NNAF fielded 150,000 calls, but was only able to provide support for 29,000 callers.
After our troupe finished loading up the van, Roberts’s plan was to visit Deirdre at the hospital, drop the Walmart purchases off at her home, and swing by the MRFF house to give me a tour. But as we were heading out of the parking lot, Roberts spotted a family standing on a grassy median in front of a gas station with a sign that said they needed gas money. The family included a father, a pregnant mother, and three young children. Roberts told her partner to pull over, got out of the van, and asked the family if they needed a hotel room for the night. They said yes, not quite believing what they were hearing. While Roberts searched on her phone for an affordable hotel room—one with free breakfast and enough space for the whole family—she told her daughter to use the MRFF debit card to fill up their car’s gas tank. With the room booked and the gas tank full, the family followed us to the hotel.
At this point, it was getting dark, and there was rush-hour traffic to deal with. When we finally arrived at the hotel, Roberts walked into the front office to check the family in and then handed them their keys. She told them she’d have a pizza delivered to their room and gave them a box of Size 4 diapers for the toddler. The mother gave each of us a huge hug, including me. At this point, it was 8:30 pm and everyone was tired, so we called it a night. Roberts and some other members of the MRFF would go to Deirdre’s place in the morning to get everything ready before CPS arrived.
As her kids unloaded the car, Roberts turned on the van’s interior light and mused about all the things she hopes to do with the MRFF house: a food pantry, a lending library, sex-education classes, parenting seminars, a community doula program. Her mother passed away recently at age 63, and Roberts, now 40, has been thinking a lot about her own mortality and the legacy she wants to leave.
“If nothing else, I raised seven amazing, empathetic, compassionate children, and I showed what a reproductive justice organization can be,” she said. “I can’t help everyone, but the work matters to the ones I can.”